|Introducing, The ZBox|
|Nettop PCs are sort of a re-purposing of a product category that was popularized in the business world, formerly known as "thin clients." Though thin client PCs are relatively "dumb" machines that rely on enterprise intranet services and servers to run applications, nettops need to have a bit more capability and operate autonomously. Regardless, both species of machine are targeted with some of the same fundamentals in mind, low profile, low power consumption computing with at least a semi-stylish appearance that blends in cleanly with its environment. One byproduct of this minimalist approach is cost and as such, nettops can offer an impressive value for potential customers looking to integrate base-level computing into their kitchen, bedroom or perhaps as a Home Theater PC (HTPC).
Though when we start to consider the requirements of an HTPC, obviously features, functionality and performance have to be turned up a notch and that's what NVIDIA's next generation Ion graphics chip was built to address. Intel's low power Atom platform has garnered an inordinate share of design wins in the netbook and nettop market, but there's no denying even the dual core variant of Intel's most recent Pineview-based Atom chip still doesn't have the muscle to get the job done for higher-end HD video playback, never mind even light-duty gaming. However, with NVIDIA's Ion graphics core at play, Intel's Atom platform gets legs, as they say.
Today we're going to be looking at a product that incorporates not only Intel's new generation of dual-core Atom D510 processor but also NVIDIA's latest Ion graphics core into what could very well be a capable machine for a myriad of small form-factor computing requirements, including possibly taking residence in your living room entertainment center. The Zotac Zbox is here. It's a little over 7 inches square and a little over 1.5-inches thick but don't let its diminutive size fool you.
Be sure to check out our full analysis with benchmark details on the pages ahead.
The first generation NVIDIA Ion solution, as you may recall, was actually a combination memory controller and IO hub chip, as well as a graphics core that Intel's low power Atom CPU bolted directly up to. This time around, Intel saw fit to partition off their own IO controller hub and integrate the memory controller into the Atom core itself. As such, NVIDIA's Ion core, though with new, optimized core engines, a smaller die size, and dedicated 512MB of frame buffer, is essentially just a discrete GPU solution for the Atom platform. Next we'll take a closer look at the Zbox itself...
NVIDIA's Next-Gen Ion Graphics Processor, aka the GeForce 218GT
|The Bundle and Exterior Design|
|The design of the new Zbox is very much like the first generation product from Zotac. It's a traditional looking nettop product similar to the Acer Aspire Revo, though perhaps a bit more stylish, depending upon your perspective.
The Zbox kit itself is pretty straight-forward with few bundled items to go with it. A simple owners manual is accompanied by a warranty card and driver CD. Zotac does include a VESA mounting bracket (pictured below) that allows you to mount the system to the back of an LCD monitor or perhaps to the wall. Finally, there is a relatively small AC to DC adapter brick that powers the system as well a stand to position the system vertically, which we feel is the best configuration in order to provide the best thermal performance for the system. More on this later.
The Zbox is a stylish looking machine with a high gloss black finish that attracts fingerprints probably about as bad as we've ever seen a product show marks from handling. We literally found ourselves wiping it down several different times during testing, our photo shoot and video shoot. That said, it's still a nice looking little machine with a lighted blue ring that catches your attention when the system is powered on.
In terms of IO connectivity, the Zbox pretty much has it all. From 6 total USB 2.0 ports, to Gigabit Ethernet, DVI and HDMI video outputs, analog audio mic inputs and headphone output, optical S/PDIF audio output,a 6-in-1 flash card reader and an eSATA port, this little machine is wide open for business. That said, ironically, without an external CD or DVD ROM drive, you can't run the driver install CD on this system. Though external optical drive solutions are easy to come by, for future generation products, we're hoping Zotac sees clear to building in a thin CD/DVD ROM combo drive. We're sure this will be at the expense of a slightly larger footprint but we'll take that trade-off for the convenience and cleaner full solution approach, any day.
|Interior Design, PCB and Vital Signs|
|The interior layout of the ZOTAC Zbox is so clean that it almost feels sparse. The top lid of the system slides off very easily after you remove two simple thumb screws. It's a virtually toolless design, whether you're just looking to get under the hood, or you're actually installing necessary system components like a 2.5" SATA hard drive and system memory, both of which are not included in ZOTAC's current bare-bones offering of the Zbox.
Just adjacent to the CPU and GPU combination heat sink and fan assembly, you can see 512MB of DDR3 Samsung memory peaking out around the fansink's shroud. This additional memory will offer a significant boost in performance versus the first generation of NVIDIA Ion and Intel Atom platform products on the market. The downside is that even though this configuration offers a bit more horsepower, it's somewhat hampered by the fact that the NVIDIA next-gen Ion GPU must connect over a single PCI Express X1 lane to interface to system resources and the CPU.
In the right side shot you can see a single empty SODIMM socket, which we wish were a double-stacked design for accommodating two sticks of memory, and a 2.5" SATA hard drive mounting bracket and retention clip that pairs with a single SATA power and data connector, that is setup mezzanine style to the motherboard.
Intel Atom Pineview-D and NVIDIA's Next Gen Ion - Partners in crime.
The first generation of Intel Atom processors (even the dual core Atom 330) shipped with a 533MHz front side bus, however, Intel's new Pineview Atom processor is dialed in now at 667MHz. Also, you'll note there are two physical cores and 4 processing threads available since this dual-core Atom variant supports Intel Hyperthreading technology. Also, this specific flavor of Atom, the Atom D510, does not come equipped with an Intel IGP on board, which is fitting since of course it's being paired up with next gen NVIDIA Ion technology, at least for this product implementation.
Finally, we see NVIDIA's Ion GPU has been ramped up a bit in terms of core clock speed and memory interface speed, versus the previous generation Ion IGP core. First gen Ion had a 450MHz core clock and an 1100MHz shader clock, while NVIDIA's eponymously named, "Next Generation Ion" graphics core runs at 535MHz core and 1200MHz shader clocks, along with a 790MHz or DDR3 1580MHz memory interface speed.
|Test System Specs and SANDRA Quick-Take|
|To assess the performance of the ZOTAC Zbox, we pitted it against a number of various netbook systems based on Intel Atom processor designs, including the first generation of NVIDIA's Ion platform, as well as standard Atom solutions. The performance numbers we've provided along with the Zbox are presented for a frame of reference more than anything else, since it was nearly impossible to provide identically configured test systems. As such these test metrics should not be considered "apples to apples" comparisons, but rather a general correlation of how the next-gen Ion-based Zbox will perform versus similar, low power platforms in its peer group.
* Thanks to our friends at Kingston Technology for supplying the DDR2 SODIMM memory we used for testing in this article.
Zotac ZBox Windows 7 Experience Index
We began our benchmark testing with SiSoftware's SANDRA, the System ANalyzer, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant. We ran three of the built-in subsystem tests that partially comprise the SANDRA test suite with the Ion-based ZOTAC Zbox (CPU Arithmetic, CPU Multimedia, and Memory Bandwidth). All of the scores reported below were taken with the Zobox's Atom processor running at its default clock speed of 1.66GHz, with 2GB of DDR2-800 system memory and HyperThreading enabled.
Left to right: SANDRA CPU, Multimedia and Memory Bandwidth Tests
Interestingly, the Zbox's Atom D510 Pineview core processor offered significantly better performance in the Processor Arithmetic test, versus the Atom D510 and D410 reference scores in SANDRA's reference database. We're not sure if this is an erroneous listing for the SANDRA suite but the scores here for the Zbox are robust, regardless. In the Multimedia test, we see the Zbox's D510 dual-core Atom line up just ahead of the previous gen Atom 330 dual core, partly due to its faster front side bus speed (667MHz versus 533MHz for the Atom 330). The Atom D510 also offered a bit more memory bandwidth versus the 330 as well, as you can see in the graph on the far right.
|Futuremark PCMark Vantage|
|PCMark Vantage configures several different usage model scenarios to simulate different types of computing workloads including HD TV and movie playback and manipulation, gaming, image editing and manipulation, music compression, communication, and productivity. Most of the tests are multi-threaded as well, so the tests can exploit the additional resources offered by the dual core Atom processor and Intel Hyperthreading. Here we're comparing the Zbox to both Intel Atom netbooks based on an Intel D945GCLF motherboards, the first generation NVIDIA Ion reference platform, a popular first gen Ion/Atom netbook, the HP Mini 311 and the Asus Eee PC1201N, which is a dual-core Atom 330 and first gen Ion solution.
In PCMark Vantage, the combination of Intel's latest generation of dual-core Atom and NVIDIA's Next Gen Ion GPU, offer simply the best general purpose computing performance we've seen from an Atom-based solution to date. Literally, hands-down in every test the ZOTAC Zbox offered best of class performance, even finishing well ahead of the nicely appointed Asus Eee PC 1201N with its dual-core Atom and first generation Ion architecture. With all test systems configured with both 2GB of DDR2 memory as well as 5400RPM hard drives, this speaks volumes for the Zbox, right out of the gate.
|HD Video Playback and Encoding|
|To test the multimedia capabilities of the Zbox, we loaded up a 1080p WMV-HD (Windows Media) clip and a 1080p QuickTime, H.264 encoded clip. In the foreground of these shots you can see Windows Task Manager Performance Monitor graphing CPU utilization, giving you an idea of how taxed the system is during this test.
Iron Man 2 Trailer - 1080p, H.264 Quicktime Video
Speed for IMAX Demo, 1080p Windows Media HD Video
We should note that both of these 1080p clips were played back using Windows Media Player. In the Performance Monitor graphs, you can see the 4 logical Atom core threads are represented, with two threads per physical Atom core, thanks to Intel HyperThreading. In the H.264 Iron Man 2 trailer above, we saw CPU utilization oscillate from about 20 - 30%, peaking higher occasionally to 45% or so. With Windows Media, the system barely broke a sweat and both clips played back very smoothly with good system responsiveness available to during playback of the clips.
* A Note On Flash Video -
At this time NVIDIA's Next Generation Ion GPU has issues with Flash video playback and performance is sub-standard. However, we're told that NVIDIA will be releasing a new driver for the platform on or around 5/24/2010, that will alleviate these issues. We don't envision this to be an issue moving forward, especially in light of how well the system performs with other types of HD video media.
|NVIDIA CUDA-Powered Media Encoding|
|A fairly common requirement for Home Theater PC users would be converting various types of HD video files to more common formats for better access to playback and portability. Home movies shot in specialized video formats especially, often need to be converted to more common file types. In the tests below we've taken a raw 720p AVCHD video clip and converted it to an MPEG4 clip and measured the time it took to render and compress the video.
We performed conversions with Cyberlink Power Director 8 which has built-in optimizations for NVIDIA CUDA-based processing that users can enable with a simple checkbox in the program. We then compared conversion times between our CUDA-enabled run and the time it took for the D510 dual core Atom processor to render it on its own.
Intel Atom - 329MB AVCHD to MPEG4 Video Conversion. Time to render: 19:19
NVIDIA Ion Assisted - 329MB AVCHD to MPEG4 Video Conversion. Time to render: 11:26
As you can see there is a stark contrast in both conversion time and system resource utilization between the NVIDIA CUDA-assisted run and the Atom-only run. NVIDA's Ion GPU was able to lop off nearly 8 minutes from the conversion time and also free up system resources significantly, allowing the Zbox to have about 40% of its CPU resources left for other tasks. Conversely, when the Atom D510 CPU was on it's own, CPU utilization was pegged and other than the conversion going on, the system was basically unresponsive.
|To touch on gaming
Update 9/7/2010 -
In testing a newly released Zotac ZBox product, we discovered anomalies in our test data for the ZBox HD-ID11. As such, the benchmark results above have been updated to correct errors we made in initial testing. Commentary was also changed to reflect these latest results .
The ZOTAC Zbox offered slightly better performance in our gaming tests, versus the fastest dual-core Atom 330/first-gen Ion system we tested in Enemy Territory Quake Wars and Half Life 2 EP2 testing. In reality, at these high image quality settings and resolution, both of these relatively impressive looking titles were mostly playable on the Zbox though they did lag in heavy action. Dropping down to medium graphics settings improved frame rates dramatically.
|Power Consumption and Accoustics|
|Throughout all of our benchmarking and testing with the NVIDIA Next Gen Ion-based ZOTAC Zbox, we monitored how much power our test systems were consuming using a power meter. Our goal was to give you an idea as to how much power a few of our systems consumed while idling and under a heavy workload
According to our tests, the Zbox consumed slightly less power than the NVIDIA Ion reference platform and Acer Aspire Revo at idle, and slightly more (4 - 5W) under load . The differences were minimal, however. To put a little perspective on these numbers, the Zbox consumes a bit less than half the power of 65W light bulb under load and less than 1/3rd of the power of that same light bulb while idling.
A Note On Acoustics -
When we first got the Zbox in for testing, its default thermal controlled fan speed settings in the BIOS caused the machine to ramp up fan speeds under load and frankly the system made a bit more racket than we would have liked. It wasn't completely obtrusive, but it was definitely not what we wanted to hear from a low power system. Since that time however, ZOTAC released a new beta BIOS that we were able to test and it definitely quieted things down nicely under load. Regardless, for optimal performance, again we would highly suggest allowing the side panel vents and edge vents of the system to have ample room for proper air intake and exhaust.
|Performance Analysis and The Wrap|
Performance Summary: Simply put, the ZOTAC Zbox offered the best Intel Atom-based computing experience we've seen from any product to hit the market thus far. The Zbox excelled over both single and dual-core Atom variants we tested, even those infused with the previous generation NVIDIA Ion chipset. This performance edge for the Zbox was the direct result of the combination of both the latest generation of the Intel Pineview-based Atom D510 dual-core processor, along with NVIDIA's Next Generation Ion graphics processor.
In the final analysis, in a manner of speaking, the ZOTAC Zbox and its features and performance, are pretty much the sum of its parts. Perhaps this sounds like we have a keen sense of the obvious, but to be honest, we were rather surprised at how well this tiny, almost Wii console-like system performed. Obviously however, the Zbox is built for the do-it-yourselfer crowd, though ZOTAC couldn't have made the process any easier. Remove three thumb-screws, slide in a 2.5" SATA notebook hard drive, and snap in a 2 or 4GB stick of DDR2 SODIMM memory and you're ready to install the OS of your choice. This brings the total Zbox solution to about $375 or so, including these inexpensive components you'll need to complete a full system build. There are but two caveats we would point out and that is the need for an optical drive of some sort, and the fact that we would have appreciated a second SODIMM socket in the machine, allowing users to use dual lower-cost 2GB sticks for 4GB configurations. The latter shortcoming is relatively easy to accommodate in a future spin of the Zbox but adding a thin optical drive is going to take more complex mechanical engineering for ZOTAC obviously. Still, we're hopeful, as this would nicely complete the offering.
Otherwise, these two small reservations kept us a hair's width away from awarding the ZOTAC Zbox our coveted Editor's Choice award. Currently, in terms of small form-factor nettops that can do a bit more than the average Atom-based machine starving for a respectable graphics engine, the Zbox is a top-notch, absolutely tiny PC that is actually very versatile for not only general purpose computing but also multimedia, light gaming and Home Theater PC requirements.